FT Globetrotter’s definitive guide to watching live sport in Melbourne
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This article is part of a new guide to Melbourne from FT Globetrotter
Melbourne is one of the world’s great sporting cities, with events ranging from Australian Football League (AFL) to Formula One racing, Grand Slam tennis and cricket at the game’s greatest stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
Few places give sport a bigger role in their culture and identity. This is a city where people talk so much about sport that even the abbreviation “MCG” has been further shortened to just “The G” to save a second or two in millions of conversations.
As the traditional capital of the homegrown football code, Melbourne is so obsessed with “Aussie Rules” and its friendly tribalism that even a mild expression of interest in the game and its top teams will help a visitor to break the ice when chatting in almost any social situation. The AFL Grand Final and the Melbourne Cup horse race even get their own public holidays in the state of Victoria, so joining in these sporting festivals is a special part of the Australian experience.
But if you are visiting, how can you go along to watch one of these sports spectacles? And how to get tickets?
The good news is that Melbourne has one of the largest inner-city sports complexes in the world, making it easier than virtually anywhere else to reach the big events, which are mostly clustered together near excellent public transport in the middle of town. Attending any of the three other global tennis Grand Slams, for instance, involves a schlep to the outer edges of New York, Paris or London, leaving the Australian Open as the only Slam played in the heart of a city.
And while tickets to Melbourne’s Formula One and motorbike racing generally need to be organised months in advance, the size of the city’s most popular arenas means that with a little planning it is usually possible to get tickets for other sports. The 100,000 people who can fit into the MCG dwarf the 30,000 capacity for Test cricket at Lords or even the 75,000 who can jam into the largest English Premier League home ground, Old Trafford.
Here is our definitive insider’s guide to what to see and when — and how to get tickets.
Browse by sport via the list below
Aussie Rules Football
Though the major football codes have all gone national in recent decades, any interest in rugby league and union was once confined to the northern states, while Aussie Rules has always dominated the south of the country, especially Melbourne.
The game evolved in Melbourne in the 1850s as an offspring of English football codes and, with 18 players a side on the field at any one time and lots of body-crunching contact, it was described by an early British sports writer as “infantry warfare without the rules”. Played on large ovals of various sizes and shapes, the game is fast and hard-hitting, with slick ball-handling skills, long kicking and spectacular high-jumping to try to catch the ball.
The AFL season runs from March to September, with last-minute tickets available for almost every game except the Grand Final at the MCG on the last Saturday of September (pro tip: you’ll need to get in early if you want to attend this climax of the winter sporting season).
Even without tickets it is worth being in town, as there is a parade and public holiday the day before the final. The game is also broadcast for the public at nearby Yarra Park.
During the regular season, four teams in the top league play home games at the MCG, while five are based at the 56,000-seat Marvel Stadium, in the nearby Docklands. One club, the Geelong Cats, plays an hour’s drive away at Kardinia Park, aka GMHBA Stadium (capacity 36,000). The four other mainland states host just two teams apiece.
Salary caps and a national draft system that gives struggling teams a recruiting advantage have helped to avoid the dominance that the richest clubs enjoy in English and European soccer, though the more popular teams such as Collingwood and Richmond still enjoy massive tribal followings.
A semi-professional AFL Women’s competition was introduced in 2017, and by 2019 it drew a record 53,000 people to its Grand Final. The season starts at the end of August.
Cost: General admission last year was A$27 (about £15) per adult, A$18 concession and A$5 for children, but they vary enormously for finals
FYI: Be wary of buying from scalpers, as the public’s demand for fair access to AFL tickets has inspired special laws that allow the state government to impose limits on reselling tickets for designated major events
The first class cricket season of four-day matches runs from October to March, but the rise of the game’s shorter formats means a dizzying schedule, with the 20-over Big Bash League drawing crowds right through December to February. October and November see a Women’s Big Bash League, which featured tennis star Ashleigh Barty as an impressive all-rounder in the league’s 2015 debut season.
The Big Bash is fast and spectacular, with fireworks, dancers and live bands. There are two Melbourne teams: the Renegades are based at Marvel Stadium, while the Stars play at the MCG. Both teams were founded in 2011, and in just over a decade have already generated a fiery derby rivalry. Their 2016 clash at the MCG drew more than 80,000 fans — the biggest crowd for any derby cricket game in the world.
The highlight of the cricketing summer, however, comes in December, when backpackers squeeze in alongside fanatical locals for the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. With fair weather, it becomes a five-day festival of singalongs, sunbathing and soaking up the action. (Melbourne’s weather is notoriously changeable, so it is a good idea to keep an eye on the forecast and pack a hat and sunscreen.) It’s one of the only matches that’s likely to sell out in advance (tickets go on sale at least a month prior, though dates vary).
Ticket information: cricket.com.au
Where to buy: Ticketmaster for Marvel Stadium; the MCG uses Ticketek. Tickets can also be bought at the gate
Cost: From A$23 for adults and A$5 for kids
FYI: Sheffield Shield and One-Day Cup tickets can be bought only at the gate, which is not a problem as the interstate competition never comes close to selling out
Australian Open Tennis
The year’s first Grand Slam has the atmosphere of a two-week festival starting in mid January, with large screens showing the matches, and music, restaurants, bars and entertainment spread around the Melbourne Park complex, right beside the MCG and a short walk from the Central Business District. Homegrown players are guaranteed loud support, but as Australia’s most multicultural city, Melbourne seems to generate loyal fanbases for players of every nationality.
The three main arenas all have retractable roofs but the weather is more likely to be scorching than wet. Crowd fashions are anything but stuffy, with relaxed clothing choices shaped more by the summer weather than any traditional dress codes. Shaded seats can be booked online but they sell out quickly.
Where to buy: Online via ticketmaster.com.au/ausopen, by phone on 1300 308 999 or from box offices on site
Cost: The cheapest option is a ground pass (in 2023 they cost from A$29 a day, A$19 an evening and A$5 for children) giving access to most courts and big-screen viewing areas. The larger venues, which boast the highest-profile matches, retractable roofs and air conditioning, are more expensive: tickets to the Rod Laver Arena started at A$109, and the Margaret Court Arena from A$65.
FYI: Tickets are for sessions rather than particular matches, and each day’s schedule is posted the previous night on ausopen.com. Premium experiences such as dining packages can be bought from Ticketmaster or here, and travel packages are here
The Australian Grand Prix is held in March or early April each year at the Albert Park lake, just a 10-minute drive or a leisurely 3.3km walk from the MCG towards the beaches of St Kilda. A long weekend of entertainment surrounds the event, with fan zones, concerts, car displays and aerial displays. Though Daniel Ricciardo, an Australian driver and fan favourite, will not grace the grid this season, locals will have plenty to cheer for with the arrival of F1 newcomer Oscar Piastri, who hails from the Melbourne suburb of Brighton.
The grandstands have been expanded after a record 419,000 attendance in 2022 but are still likely to sell out, so tickets need some early planning. Hospitality experiences and grandstand tickets for 2023 went on sale in late November, with general-admission park passes released in December.
Ticket information: Fans can sign up here
Where to buy: It is an almost entirely digital event, with tickets needing to be bought from Ticketmaster or an authorised reseller — there are no tickets at the gate. International vendors are listed here.
Cost: Grandstand seats ranged from A$415 to A$625 for the 2023 event. Park passes give access to music performances, a BMX stunt show, a silent disco and show cars, and this year cost A$250 for all four days (A$20 for juniors) or A$40 for the first day, A$70 for day two, A$110 for day three and A$125 for the final day.
FYI: Race weekend this year is March 31–April 2
Australia’s grandest horse race lasts just 3.5 minutes at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November, but the Melbourne Cup Carnival spans four days of racing, fashion and entertainment as the highlight of the three-month Spring Racing Carnival, which includes other top races such as the Caulfield Cup and Moonee Valley’s Cox Plate.
Almost every workplace in the city runs its own Cup sweep so that even once-a-year punters can join in the excitement, and while suits and big hats are not compulsory, thousands of racegoers do like to dress up for the occasion as fashion is a big theme of the carnival.
Flemington Racecourse is only a 15-minute drive of less than 8km from the MCG, but public transport is always the best bet on Cup Day, a public holiday.
Insider tip: One great spot for viewing both the races and Melbourne’s skyline that requires no tickets is the Moonee Valley Legends venue, right on the edge of the popular racetrack. Perched above the turn into the home stretch, the bistro and bar has spectacular views from a large balcony or indoor seating areas and is treasured by locals.
Ticket information: flemington.com.au/melbournecupcarnival
Where to buy: On some occasions it has been possible to buy tickets at the gate, but with huge crowds (the record was 122,736 in 2003) it is safest to buy in advance at vrc.com.au or ticketmaster.com.au
Cost: General admission tickets allow you to roam around the racecourse, and for the 2022 cup they went on sale for A$89 per adult or A$159 for a family ticket
Melbourne is home to two of the eight teams in the world’s top national netball league, Suncorp Super Netball. The Collingwood Magpies and the Melbourne Vixens share the 10,300-seat John Cain Arena in Melbourne Park, and their hometown rivalry has become a feature of the competition since the Magpies were formed in 2016 to go up against the Vixens, one of the biggest names in the sport.
The Vixens won their first four league clashes with the newcomers, but the Magpies came out on top in five of their next nine head-to-head games, adding a real edge to their derby clashes.
Where to buy: Via Ticketek
Cost: Prices vary depending on demand, seating areas and the time of purchase. There are four seating categories and seats can be bought in Cubs Corner, an area for young children and their guardians
Soccer and rugby
Soccer and rugby do not have the same hold on the Melbourne public as Aussie Rules and cricket, but they have been steadily gaining popularity.
These “rectangular” sports are based at AAMI Park, yet another facility in the city-centre sports precinct, with soccer’s A-League competition running through the warm months from October to May, while the National Rugby League goes from March to October and the Super Rugby Pacific competition from February to June.
The 30,000-seat outdoor stadium is home to rugby league’s Melbourne Storm, rugby union’s Melbourne Rebels and two A-League soccer clubs, Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City, which is part of the same Abu Dhabi-owned soccer empire that includes Manchester City.
Victory and City both field teams in the semi-professional A-League Women.
Ticket information: Find out what’s on via aamipark.com.au
Cost: Prices vary. The A-League charges around A$30-$A65 (A$7to A$30 for juniors) plus a service fee of A$6.30 per online transaction
FYI: If you do not have a mobile device, hard-copy tickets can be issued at the venue box office with proof of purchase
Two other major events occur less than two hours by car from Melbourne.
Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix
The Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix draws fans for three days every October to the Phillip Island race circuit, south-east of Melbourne, with sea views adding to the panorama.
Day passes started at A$43 in 2022 (free for under 14s) for Friday tickets, with Saturday and Sunday tickets priced at A$65 and A$90, respectively.
Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach
The 1.5-hour drive from central Melbourne to the world’s longest-running professional surfing event brings an opportunity to see the views from the Great Ocean Road over the Easter long weekend.
The Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach is held on a beach that is a natural amphitheatre, and attendance is limited to 5,000 to protect the beach setting. It regularly sells out and tickets can only be bought on site, so make sure you get there early if you are going to make the drive. Capacity updates are posted at surfingvic.com/rip-curl-pro.
A festival pass (A$35 in 2022, free for under 16s) allows entry across the entire weekend, while a day pass was A$10 and car parking A$5. The car park fills quickly, so an alternative is the free shuttle bus that runs hourly from 8:30am at the Rip Curl store in Torquay.
What are your favourite Melbourne sporting events? Tell us in the comments
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